The lady who sold Coole Park

Happier times: Margaret with her son Richard, probably taken by Robert about 1910. (Courtesy Colin Smythe collection).

Happier times: Margaret with her son Richard, probably taken by Robert about 1910. (Courtesy Colin Smythe collection).

Week III

One of the significant consequences of the Ballyturn ambush, on May 15 1921, was that it heralded the end of Coole, the anvil of the Irish Literary revolution at the beginning of the 20th century.

Much of the land at Coole had already been sold to tenants under the various Land Acts; but the house, its walled gardens, and lake were associated with its famous chatelaine: Lady Augusta Gregory. In the early years of the 20th century, it was a busy and creative place. The artists, playwrights and poets who stayed there, discussed their work in progress, and went away inspired.

Following the death of Lady Gregory’s husband the house and estate were left to their son Robert, which he was to inherit when he was 21 years old. But even when he achieved his inheritance, he was happy to leave the house under his mother’s influence as always.

In 1907 Robert married Margaret Parry, from Cheltenham, England. They were both young artists, and met at the famous Slade School of Art, London. They spent long periods abroad, and during the summer holidays, stayed at the family holiday home Mount Vernon, New Quay, the Burren. They were often joined by the artist Augustus John, and his menage of several women, and other Bohemian artist friends.

Their three children, Catherine, Anne and Richard, who adored their grandmother, spent their childhood years at Coole. When WB Yeats, a constant guest of Lady Gregory’s, first met Margaret he described her as ‘ pretty, very clever and with beautiful manners.’ She was welcomed into the family. She illustrated three of Lady Gregory’s books*, which Lady Gregory greatly appreciated.

But there were tensions in the house. Robert openly resented the way ‘Willie’ Yeats used his mother’s house, drinking the best wine, sleeping in his father’s old room, and other annoyances. And Margaret followed her husband’s prejudices, resenting the constant intrusion of Yeats into the Gregory home. Yeats always took this criticism meekly. In many ways Coole was his home. He was Lady Gregory’s guest and friend; she was his collaborator, advisor, and the woman who recognised his genius as a young emerging artist.

There was at least one shouting row at table. In April 1918 Yeats brought his young wife, George Hyde-Lees, on her first visit to Coole. Lady Gregory felt a bit miffed that her role as adviser and close friend with WB could now change with a young wife on the scene; but Margaret received them ‘rather rudely’ (Margaret privately noted that poor George was:‘ hideous - very badly made - but apparently quite pleasant’ ). Following some comment, Yeats, instead of avoiding a reply as was his custom, turned on Margaret, and gave her a tongue lashing. He and his wife went up to bed ‘in high spirits’.**

A stormy Summer

Margaret came to Ireland as a young wife in a strange country. She had three children with Robert. But seven years into their marriage she was shattered to learn that Robert was having an affair with a 23-year-old Nora Summers, who along with her husband Gerald was part of a London arty set that she and Robert knew well, and who were frequent guests at Mount Vernon and at Coole. The affair, wrote Margaret ‘utterly finished my wonderful dream with Robert’.***

It was a stormy summer of 1915, the second year of World War I. Margaret suffered a miscarriage. There were rows and scenes between the young Gregorys, reconcilliations and rebuffs, until finally Robert announced that although he was 34 years old, he would enlist.

At his age and his family connections, Robert could have expected to get a safe commission, but instead he crossed from the Connaught Rangers to the Royal Flying Corps, at a time when the average life expectancy for new pilots had been estimated at only three weeks.

Yet Robert survived arduous combat duties, winning the Military Cross and the Legion d’Honneur for exceptional bravery and skill until, to the inconsolable grief of his mother, the telegram arrived at Coole on February 2 1918. Lady Gregory wrote briefly to Yeats: ‘The long dreaded telegram has come - Robert killed in action...It is very hard to bear.’

‘Kind to Yeats’

Margaret became unhappy at Coole, depressed, and increasingly alarmed at the vicious pace of the War of Independence. She felt that Ireland was not a safe place to bring up her children. She talked about selling Coole and leaving the country.

Nineteen twenty was a particularly gruesome year. Dramatic events on the national stage included the death of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence McSweeney ( October 25 ), after a prolonged hunger strike; ‘Bloody Sunday’, November 21; and the Kilmichael ambush in November 28 created fear and anguish.

Terrible things were also happening in South Galway. There were house burnings, and beatings, arrests, and searches. In October brothers Pat and Harry Loughnane were beaten to death, their bodies dragged behind one of the dreaded lorries through Shananglish, and dumped in a ditch. The following month Ellen Quinn, the wife of Malachi, a well- known farming family at Kiltartan, was shot outside her front door from a passing military lorry. She bled to death that night to the despair of her family and neighbours.

Lady Gregory was incensed at the behaviour of the crown forces. She began to recount, in robust language, in the London journal The Nation, the appalling record of the Black and Tans. They were written anonymously for fear that she might become a target for reprisal. The articles were identified as the work of a ‘distinguished writer and landlord’.

The final straw for Margaret was the Ballyturn ambush, May 15 1921. Apart from the horror of seeing her friends gunned down in front of her, it was truly miraculous that she escaped unscathed. It totally soured her already negative opinion of Ireland: ‘Out of every 1,000 Irishmen,’ she wrote, ‘995 are swine.’

Coole was sold to the Department of Forestry. Arrangements were made to allow Lady Gregory to remain in the house for her lifetime.

Surprisingly, however, Margaret did not leave Ireland. She married a neighbour Guy Gough of Lough Cutra castle, and bought a house in county Dublin. Even so she was frequently at Coole house. There were difficulties about the sale of furniture, and later about Lady Gregory’s papers. But as Lady Gregory’s health deteriorated, Margaret urged Yeats to visit her as often as he could which he did. He was not, however, there when she died May 22 1932. Arriving later that day, he was met by Lady Gregory’s granddaughter Catherine at Gort station. He embarrassed her by openly weeping. As they rode back to Coole, sitting back to back on the trap, ‘Yeats sobbed like a child’.

On this visit all the old animosities were gone. Margaret recognised Yeats’s loss. She acknowledged that Coole was his home too, that it was now gone forever. Yeats recalled later that he and Margaret were not always friends, but she was kind to him on this occasion. Without being asked, she unlocked the big room upstairs, where Yeats had slept and written as a young man.

He went in, then no longer young. He was heavy with a growing international reputation as one of the greatest poets of the century, several honorary doctorates, awards, a Nobel laureate, a member of Seanad Éireann, a father and husband, and sat for a while looking out, for the last time, on the woods and lake from which he first drew inspiration.

NOTES: * The Kiltartan Wonder Book ( Maunsel Dublin 1910, The Blessed Trinity (Bucks. 1985 ) and The Golden Apple, Murray, London, 1907 ).

**James Pethica: ‘Yeats’s “perfect man”’, Dublin Review 35, Summer 2009.

*** James Pethica, Dublin Review 35, Summer 2009

Having been prompted by Lady Gregory and Margaret, Yeats wrote three poems in memory of Robert Gregory; one of which, An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, is sometimes regarded as one of the finest poems in the English language.

Margaret died in 1979 in Exeter, Devonshire. Her husband Guy had predeceased her in 1959.

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